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Growing Pains in Childhood - Fact or Fiction?

Childhood Limb Pain (CLP), Growing Pains in Children
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Frequently asked questions about childhood growing pains

Answers to the questions you may have about growing pains in childhood

Phil and Jordan at the beach

Phil and Jordan at Charmouth Beach


So, what exactly are growing pains?
Nobody knows why they happen. But one thing is clear: they have nothing to do with growth. That's the official view, but I don't always agree, because there is more to growth than just getting taller. Growing pains has become a label covering all sorts of issues in children, generally from the waist down. Growing pains are what doctors call a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that other conditions should be ruled out before a diagnosis of growing pains is made.

How many children are affected by growing pains?
Growing pains affect around 40% of children to varying degrees and doctors find them incredibly difficult to diagnose accurately. That's even if you can find one who is remotely sympathetic. They generally occur during two periods: in early childhood among 3 to 5 year-olds and, later, in 8 to 13 year-olds.

What ages are most at risk of growing pains?
The pains usually affect healthy children between the ages of 3 and 13, and always happen at night.

What will my child feel if they were to get a bout of growing pains?
In the worst case, they would feel intense pain and cramp, affecting both legs symmetrically (though not always at the same time). Usually the calf, shins, ankles, and thighs are affected, and growing pains will often be felt in the joints. They will not cause the child to limp or become unable to walk.

What if it's not growing pains, but something more serious?
It's a sad fact, but pain in the limbs of young children can be a sign of serious problems including chronic rheumatic disease, inflammatory muscle disease, childhood arthritis, leukaemia and sepsis. However, it's important to realize that in all these instances there will be other indicators that the child is not well. For example, you should definitely see a doctor if there is any joint swelling, excessive heat, redness, or the pain is in only one leg, or they are experiencing pain in the arms or back, fever, loss of appetite or weight loss. Even without these other symptoms, if you are at all worried, you should take a child with severe, repetitive growing pains, to the GP.

I've heard that growing pains are short lived and that my child will grow out of them. Is this true?
Yes. However troublesome they appear to be during those early years, you will see an end to them eventually.

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Growing Pains from Football Do growing pains run in families?
I've often heard it said that yes, growing pains run in families, but I don't know about the genetics of it, so couldn't give you a definite answer. I do wonder if there is a hereditary aspect to growing pains, or whether the habits of a family are passed on through to the children.

For example, you will very often see that children with overweight parents will also carry too much weight. Now, is this a product of genes, or is it more likely to be that the parents are feeding the children the same foods that made them fat in the first place? That's not inherited through the genes, that's learned behaviour.

Likewise, if a parent, or grandparent, had growing pains, perhaps because they were the athletic type when they were young, is this not the type of behaviour that the parent will be encouraging the child to be involved with, and thus almost reinforce the prophecy that the child will have growing pains too? Remember, our parents and grandparents HAD to GO OUT to get their entertainment. They probably weren't allowed to stay indoors under mum's feet longer than a few minutes at a time, or perhaps only coming in at teatime. I can certainly remember those times.

So what did I do when my own children came along? They joined the football club, or the rugby club, or the athletics club, and they played, and they practiced, and they got good, so they played and practiced some more. Isn't that what we do, afterall? Encourge our kids to be the best they can be? Then, after a particularly hard session, they get pains in the legs, and you put it down to tiredness, a kick in the shins, or just growing pains.

Then, later on, when they suddenly discover Nintendo, Wii or Xbox, do we resist, or just give in and accept never to see them again? After they become weak, and sedentary, and overweight, try getting them to do anything then. They will try, and try, but it will hurt and so they stop. That same night they are wide awake, in pain, and complaining about pains in their legs. You just can't win! Growing Pains from Sports Play

When should I see the doctor?
You should definitely consult the doctor if there is any swelling in the joints, discolouration (redness), fever, severe pain, rapid weight loss or loss of appetite. Limping in the daytime is a sure sign it is something more than growing pains. But mostly, children with growing pains, will be otherwise healthy in every other respect, and have no problems playing in the playground, or engaging in physical activity such as sports.

Is it true that growing pains are the early stage of Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?
I've heard that too, but I think it has more to do with who you ask, than whether it's true. RLS is primarily an adult problem, and the symptoms don't match, but you could forgive a parent for wondering if the child's growing pains are somehow connected to their restless leg. Some research does loosely link the two, but more studies are needed to confirm this.

Would keeping records of my child's growing pains help?
Records always help, perhaps use the household diary to plot what activities may possibly be the trigger of an attack of growing pains during the night. There may be times when your child has growing pains for several nights on the trot, and then have nothing for days, weeks, or months. Be on the lookout for unusual behaviour if it goes on for a long time without a break. Regular episodes can have a substantial effect on a young life. Look out if they became increasingly lethargic, obstinate or uncommunicative; they may become overtired, worried, afraid of going to sleep, lose interest in activities, school and playing with friends.

Is my child just making this up, or looking for attention?
They do want your attention, yes, that's why they cry loudly in the night; because they need your help. But, are they making it up? No, growing pains, whatever they are, are very real, with pain levels ranging from mild to very severe. But you have to sort of remember, unexplained pain and lying awake in the dark are scary for a child. The delay between crying out and you arriving, even if it is only a few seconds, will seem like ages to your young one.

What does a diagnosis of exclusion mean?
When you take your child to a doctor, they will exclude lots of conditions before giving you a diagnosis of growing pains. They will be looking for things like arthritis, chronic rheumatic disease, inflammatory muscle disease, childhood leukaemia, restless leg syndrome, vascular perfusion disorder, fatigue or emotional disturbance, depression, distorted posture, reduced tibial bone strength, overuse injury, limping, loss of mobility. So, lots of things have to be rejected before anyone will even consider growing pains. But what this tells me is, 'Well, you don't have any of these 'real' diseases, so you must have growing pains'. And, it is because of this attitude that you get short shrift from many doctors who don't even believe that it exists.

How long do growing pains last?
Growing pains can last from a few minutes to over an hour or so. Recurrent episodes can be a week at a time, or on and off for a whole year. And this can continue on and off at anytime from 3 to 12 years of age. So for a child with growing pains, the potential for distess is pretty great!

Is there anything I can do to prevent the pains occurring in the first place?
There will be many who will want to shoot me down in flames here, but I am convinced that taking the proper precautions before going to bed, can stall them until the sun comes up. The DVD shows some simple stretching exercises that your child can perform prior to retiring which seems to have the effect of delaying the onset of growing pains. I present these at the end of the DVD, with a child in pyjamas, so that you can show your child that they can be incorporated into the nighttime routine. When coupled with washing, teeth cleaning and storytime, they become a natural part of getting ready for bed.

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DISCLAIMER: This information is not presented by a medical practitioner and is for educational and informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read.

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